I have taught “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes every year for the last five years. I wasn’t planning to teach it in either of my courses this year, even Rebels With a Cause, into which the poem would fit perfectly. But I did teach it. To all my classes, including Service Learning.
I taught it in response to the election. Because it was the first of many things I read myself in an effort to make sense and forge ahead. Because I couldn’t find my own words to express what I was feeling, fearing, and thinking. Because this poem was the most appropriate piece through which to mourn.
When I returned to my classroom two days after the election (I am burdened but not ashamed to have taken a day off to gather myself precisely for my children at home and at school), I showed my students Abeena Koomson’s riveting rendition of the Hughes classic.
Then, we read and reread the poem, together, in groups, in silence. We asked questions. We sought answers. We pondered the significance of particular lines, and words, and punctuation marks that gave meaning to the “homeland of the free” and (America never was America to me). We made connections, and asked ourselves whether this poem, written eight decades ago, is relevant today.
I didn’t capture everything, least of all the poignant personal connections students made to both the despair and the hope conveyed in the poem, with which we spent time in the days immediately following the election. I want to share some of my students’ thoughts on why “Let America Be America Again” is relevant today.